In his book Blue Latitudes, Tony Horwitz traces the steps of Captain James Cook, Britain’s most renowned explorer, navigator, and cartographer. In three epic journeys, this 18th-century seaman charted roughly one third of the world, with some of his maps remaining in use until the 1990s. Remarkable. Then and now.
In one chapter, Horwitz points to a conspicuous parallel between Cook’s command of the HMS Endeavor and that of Captain James T. Kirk of the USS Enterprise. Similar names and similar journeys into, respectively, unchartered waters and unexplored planets. One man real; the other, fictional. But both brave, bold officers, as well as fearless innovators who, for many, illustrate the ultimate risks and rewards of exploration and discovery.
In essence these two Captains represent today’s industrial business leaders. For a company faced with the challenge to do more, faster and cheaper, the need to explore and discover new ways of operating has never been greater. Perhaps we can learn something from the good Captains?
Sometimes, it’s the small things
The digital realm is ripe with opportunities to make new discoveries and gain competitive advantages. Only, the thing about new discoveries is that they require an openness to change. And change can be tough, especially in the industrial sector where it’s not just a matter of thinking differently, but essentially altering the very DNA of how companies operate. Often, employees are accustomed to, if not ensconced in, a certain rhythm of work and manner of operation. Open a program, hit a button, turn a machine on, have it do what it’s always done.
Unfortunately, what it’s always done may not be enough.
In fact, as the world becomes more and more connected, many traditional practices could soon prove business limiting.
Consider for a moment what our Captains would do when faced with a supposedly insurmountable obstacle. They could continue to follow the standard steps and hope for the best, or take a bold new direction. Typically, they opted for the later.
Today, industrial organizations are facing just such an obstacle.
Early in 2017, Gartner estimated that more than 20 billion “things” will be connected to the Internet by 2020. Of that total, business Internet of Things (IoT) units represent approximately 7.5 billion. Clearly, the rapid pace of device production—and connection—offers proof of the potential for industrial growth and, as a result, has business leaders looking to advanced technology and digital capabilities, including cloud adoption, to gain an edge.
To take a simple example, it’s no longer sufficient for shop operators to read the temperature of a machine twice a day to ensure it’s within a certain range. Rather, it’s necessary—and now possible—to extract machine data, run it through advanced analytics tools, and make real-time adjustments to maintain the ideal temperature all day, every day. While seemingly a minute tweak, this kind of automation and specificity might translate to a 2% reduction in monthly costs. Take that percentage, multiply it across thousands of machines, and the overall savings could add up quickly.
Or how about a more toothsome example? What if a company were shipping heavy cream in the back of a tanker truck from a dairy farm in Maine to an ice cream production facility in Texas (you know, it could happen)? It’s cold in Maine, hot in Texas. Could there be ways to better guarantee that the cream remains at the optimal temperature and consistency throughout its 2,000-mile journey?
With sophisticated sensors installed on the truck to monitor the temperature 24/7, data could be collected and used to fix an immediate on-board issue. As an example, if the primary cooling unit were to fail, a secondary one could be automatically turned on. That data could also be broadcast to the cloud for remote monitoring, managing, and mapping. By analyzing aggregate data from a fleet of vehicles, potential failure of cooling units could be identified before there is an issue. Early detection could lead to preemptive maintenance or replacement, saving time and money. That data could also identify more optimal routes to help drivers avoid heavy congestion or unfavorable weather conditions entirely.
The final ice cream output requires the best ingredients to make it spectacular. While the backup units and rerouting might not save money, per se, they contribute to maintaining the integrity of the product. And what does that do for business? In the long run, the ability to deliver a consistent and superior product experience is what drives brand loyalty and keeps customers coming back for more.
Always room for improvement
A New York Times review of Horwitz’s book opened with the line, “One of the problems with our planet is that there is nowhere new to go.” The consequence being that, today, exploration is limited to following in the footsteps of those explorers who’ve gone before. But really, is there nowhere left to go, nothing different to explore? Perhaps it’s a matter of perspective.
Captain Cook had the best technology of his time. But if he’d had access to the tools and data and analytics of today, would he have even needed a ship? Whether yes or no, it’s doubtless he would have ceased to seek greater knowledge and adventure.
We live in amazing times, with amazing advantages. Risks be damned (well, to a degree). It’s not time to be complacent; it’s time to—like Captains Cook and Kirk—be bold and endeavor toward ever greater pursuits and successes. What once was science fiction is now reality, and choosing to stay ashore, watching other ships pass by... well, is that really even a choice?